A bright, beautiful Sunday afternoon was the perfect backdrop for my second day at Pittsburgh Fringe.
The glorious sunlight showed the blurred lines separating the performances in the festival and the rich, real lives being lived in the North Side. The festival wasn’t taking over the city. It was highlighting the great stories and original voices everyone there has inside them.
The time had come for the artists in the festival to expose their work. I walked the Mexican War streets feeling like that time was coming for many of the people seeing the shows in the theaters and those feeling them from afar.
Inspiration for a fringe entry struck unexpectedly in the case of this first show.
If you’ve walked down a busy street in Scranton, PA in the last several months, there is a chance you witnessed one of this festival’s most passionate and touching shows being born. Well, as creator Vanessa White Hernandes attests, The Hugging Army: An Experience in Connection is not a performance. I agree wholeheartedly. More than anything it is a testimony to the healing capacity of hugging.
When you enter her space, she encourages you to pull up a chair and have a piece of chocolate. That’s what I enjoyed most about her message and its delivery—it wasn’t pushy or aggressive at all. It mirrored her approach to offering free hugs in her hometown. She did so first while bravely wearing a blindfold. Later, she went out again without one to truly connect with the people she hugged.
She shares her stories using several beautiful photographs taken by her wife. And, in the room taking pictures during the testimony I attended, was her son. It’s hard not to be affected by the incredible support she receives from her family and even harder not to offer some of your own via a hug at the show’s end. I didn’t take one of the “Free Hugs” signs Vanessa offered, but I feel much safer knowing there are people like her reaching out and not letting go until things change.
Fluid storytelling filled a lot of my day from the conversational mood of The Hugging Army to two zany improv shows.
It takes guts to bill your act as “really funny” in the title. Luckily for the St. Louis improv team Awkward Attic Ensemble, their comedy set That Really Funny Improv Show displayed both guts and glory. For a portion of this performance, I was the only person in the audience, but AAE made me feel right at home.
Their subtle approach to improv was epitomized by their dry joke delivery. Whatever the random conversation that carried on between scenes, I felt like I was among friends. The precision of their humor was only enhanced by their chemistry as a troupe. When a joke really landed, the audience and the improvisers laughed in unison. They proved that with some games, at least those involving comedy, there does not have to be a loser.
And, then there was this show, where losing was the only rule.
It turns out that we were wrong when we predicted that only cockroaches would survive the apocalypse. According to Triage, reality shows did as well.
Everyone in the audience is forced to take part in the humiliation experienced by its two contestants. A deranged Host brings the pain along with her machine gun bullet sash-wearing pianist sidekick. All while barking through a gas mask, Host forces the players to compete in challenges fashioned after game shows from Project Runway to The Bachelor.
You’d think that Bent Antennae Productions was the real tyrant for constructing a 90-minute improvised show with this bizarre and unpredictable a format. Fortunately, all four performers have ample amounts of physical and comedic stamina to keep the energy high and the audience cackling. It was a disturbingly delightful treat of a show that relished in its schadenfreude and absurdity.
I have to admit that, for much of the weekend, I was craving a more traditional, one-act play theatrical experience. I read in my program that that was precisely what Thoreau, NM’s The Booth was, but its looks were definitely deceiving.
I thought I made a wrong turn when I arrived at the performance.
I saw a long, white folding table, a few laptops, and dozens of knobs and switches between the light and sound boards. I assumed I was intruding on space of the show’s crew, but, once I noticed audience members already seated, I made my way in. I am so glad I did because I left having seen what remains my number one show of the festival.
The set recreated the tech hubs from which stage managers and board operators make theatre magic a reality. Lance-Eric Skapura’s tight script drags these humble heroes out of the shadows to humanize them for those who are unaware of the great work they do.
Much of the meat of the action takes place during a “pizza cue” for the show that Athena, Paula, and Robert are calling. They joke that this break between cues in the show is so long they could order, receive, and eat a pizza in the interim, but they air their dirty laundry instead.
As stage manager, the show within the show literally hangs on Athena’s every word. Similarly, as an actress, Lisa Germ lights up the room as she hysterically rants about the tribulations of stage crew life in what is supposed to be an inspirational speech for middle schoolers. She still inspired me, though. I’ll never look at stage managers or the ending of West Side Story the same way again.
And you’ll never look at your Gameboy the same again either thanks to The Dorothy Matrix 8-Bit Orchestra. Who is Dorothy Matrix? She’s the heroine of the Super Maestro Bros. video game. Haven’t heard of the game? No problem. After defeating her wicked rival, Dotty has crossed over into our world to share her one of a kind gift.
Armed with just eight Gameboy Classics, Dorothy Matrix (played with eccentric charm by Andrew Davis) conducts a collection of some of the classical genre’s greatest hits. The bombastic flourishes of Beethoven’s 5th lifted me a few inches of my seat during the performance’s finale. I also appreciated the demonstration of the “atonality stone”, which served to deepen Matrix’s fictional mythology and reveal the full potential of her unorthodox instruments. It’s not your grandmother’s symphony concert, but she’d be so much cooler if it was.
My first festival was eye-opening in every sense. I didn’t get a lot of sleep along the way. But every minute of this experience was worth it. I now understand that fringe-worthy entertainment is everywhere as long as we make ourselves able to see it.